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Chess in School

December 2004

Abstract:
The educational value of the game of chess has been discovered in schools around the world. Perhaps some day it will be in the U.S.
It turns out that one of the best things we can do for our children in school is to teach them the game of chess and let them play it. Studies have shown that kids who have learned to play chess and who do play improve their learning capacity and their thinking ability, improve their school grades, and improve their behavior. That's not surprising to those of us who play the game.

A game of chess is a series of mutual puzzles, constructed by the two players for each other's solution. At each move, a player has two tasks: First to deal with the puzzle the opponent has set for him, and second, to change the puzzle he has set for his opponent so as to create the most difficult puzzle for the opponent to solve, if possible an unsolvable puzzle that will win the game. This is a mental challenge beyond the ordinary. At the same time, chess, which nearly all children find fascinating when they're exposed to it, teaches them so many things – through experience, the most effective teacher:

  • Concentration and focus. In a chess game, a moment's lack of focus can lead to disaster. The child learns to apply his (or her, of course) mind unflaggingly to the situation at hand, a skill that often will be new to the child.
  • The value of study. Kids learn that raw talent is not enough to win games. It takes effort and study to understand the principles of the game and the employment of the multitude of stratagems. The connection between study and results is easily learned, because the connection between lack of study and results is easily learned.
  • Unbiased assessment. The child starts out thinking that he just needs to plan his own move. Then he discovers that the other player also has a plan and the opportunity to move. Oops. He learns that he has to evaluate the position from both sides. He has to play the opponent's game as well as his own. He has to make an unbiased assessment of the position.
  • Thoroughness. If he misses analysis of a single reply, that's likely to be the move that undoes him.
  • Logical analysis. It's a logical game, and wishful thinking will get you nowhere.
  • Problem solution. Every move by the opponent sets a new problem for the player to solve.
  • Spatial visualization. The child learns to look ahead, both logically and spatially. The ability to act on the likely future position – not just the present – is critical in the game.
  • Planning. There's a reason why one speaks of complex situations as "a chess game." A chess game is the "poster boy" for planning. In chess, without planning you get nowhere.
  • Facing facts. When your game is hopelessly lost, you reach out your hand to your opponent with the words, "I resign". It's a maturing experience to have to acknowledge that you've been bested.
  • Creativity. There are so many billions of possible positions in chess that in spite of masters having played the game for hundreds of years, each child will see positions that have never been seen on a chess board by anyone. The feeling that he's the first person in history to try to solve this position inspires awe as well as creativity in the child.
  • "Multi-tasking." There is so much going on simultaneously on the chess board that the player may be likened to a general of an army in battle. Discovering the opponent's weak points and determining how to bring pressure to bear on those, while shoring up one's own weak points and countering the opponent's attack; thinking tactically and strategically at the same time; these are valuable lessons.
  • Courtesy and respect. Before the game starts, the players shake hands. When the game has ended, the players shake hands. This is traditional, and is adhered to to this day.
  • Emotional stability. The child will win and lose at chess. He will learn to deal with both, perhaps – as Rudyard Kipling put it – "to treat those two impostors just the same."
  • Sharing When the game is over, win or lose, the two opponents will get together in the "skittles" room to go over their game and analyze what happened. They may not talk during the game, but they make friends afterward.
  • Patience and deferred goals. Every new chess player wants to make moves that will checkmate the opponent. Right now! Learning chess means learning that you need to allow for the opponent's will and plans, which may be as effective as your own. Your plans for immediate success will have to be put on hold, while you counter your opponent's plans.
  • Teamwork. Although chess is an individual game, the chess club will play matches against other clubs. And suddenly chess is a team game. The cameraderie of the team is a great experience for the child, and puts his game in the perspective of the greater effort.
  • Responsibility, independence and self-reliance. On the chess board your own decision is final. There's no counsel, no coach; you make your own call and live by it. No one else is responsible for what happens to you in a chess game. Only you are. "Wherever you go, there you are." You have no one to blame for your predicament but yourself.
So ... so many useful lessons, so many useful qualities. One could list more, but after this (perhaps tiresome) recitation we get the point. In case we don't, the point is that children who learn the game of chess learn, experience, and practice a dozen traits that will be invaluable in creating successful adults. And while the kids are absorbing these qualities, they're having fun. Lots of fun. Not to mention that the game's fascination keeps the kids out of all kinds of social trouble.

If we were to make a list of traits to help a student mature and do well, we'd be hard put to come up with a better list than the traits that are taught through the game of chess. So here we are as educators; we are looking for ways to help students concentrate, to understand the value of study and the need for an unbiased view of the world, to learn thoroughness, the consequences of one's own actions, logic and analysis, solving problems, visualization, planning, honest facing of facts, creativity, "multi-tasking", responsibility, courtesy, emotional stability, sharing, patience & deferred gratification, teamwork, independence and self-reliance. And here's an activity &ndash chess &ndash that teaches all those goals. It would seem a natural that we would use the game to achieve those ends.

But ... school politics being what it is, you just don't spend your instruction time teaching a game. It doesn't teach any "facts", and facts are after all what standardized tests are after. Such tests unfortunately don't test for responsibility, thoroughness, logic, planning, creativity, multi-tasking, courtesy, stability, sharing, patience, teamwork, independence, and so forth. In other words, standardized tests don't test for any of the traits that we would like our children to learn – they test only for facts that might be good for kids to know and for specific skills in manipulating those facts. Now, I won't ask how the educational establishment decided that knowledge and employment of facts and skills is more vital to our children than the character traits mentioned above, but I will say that this assessment is dead wrong. Children become responsible and productive adults, not according to the facts they know, but according to their character.

Let me close with a few words from Benjamin Franklin. He was an avid chess player, and in his article "Morals of Chess" he spoke of the many positive character traits that may be learned from the game. A few among these:

Foresight – "If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me?"
Circumspection, "which surveys the whole chessboard, or scene of action, the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to."
Responsibility: "If you have incautiously put yourself into a bad and dangerous position, you cannot obtain your enemy's leave to withdraw your troops and place them more securely; but you must abide all the consequences of your rashness."

Now, many schools have chess clubs, as they have French clubs and quilting clubs, but my point is that the game of chess has an instructional value that makes it different from most activities. That's not to say that there may not be other games or activities that have salutary effects, but a huge advantage of chess is that it already exists both as a world-wide and a local organized activity for both adults and kids. Children's chess tournaments ("scholastic tournaments," as they are called) are common, and often draw hundreds of kids. According to the US Chess Federation (USCF) 30 million American children play chess. Community chess leaders organize these tournaments, and the schools need only buy into the existing interest in order to benefit from this activity.

My proposal is that we ought to teach chess in our schools, and follow up with advanced instruction and competitive play. It will be objected that we don't have enough class time as it is, to teach the "required" subjects. My answer is that most of those subjects don't have half the educational value of the game of chess. We should recognize that learning and playing chess is an educational tool which will prepare the child better to study and learn other subjects.

The result that I'm visualizing is a student body that have been introduced to the game of chess and that – in part – have become practitioners of the game. The positive effect on student motivation, morale, abilities and socialization will be far beyond what the school can attain by traditional means. Far from shying away from chess instruction because it's a "mere game," educators should embrace it because it has been shown to give youngsters a superb grounding for their further maturation and education.   –   And lest one think that mine is a voice crying in the wilderness, a growing number of forward-looking countries have added chess to their school syllabus. The latest is Turkey, which with 70 million people may soon the most populous country in the European Union (they may be admitted within a couple of years). Starting in September 2005 chess will be offered in all schools in Turkey.

For more about chess in schools, check the USCF website at www.uschess.org or contact Diane Reeves, USCF director of scholastic programs at events@uschess.org.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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